At its most basic level, a car is just a way to move a body from point A to point B. But for many people, cars are an expression of personality. From Elvis' pink Cadillac to James Dean's Porsche to the legions of current celebs who make a point of driving Priuses, what you drive says a lot about who you are.
But what happens if the car you're driving ... isn't actually being driven by you? The idea of self-driving cars has been "twenty years in the future ever since about 1939" says Chris Gerdes, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS).
The future is now, and the cars aren't just driving themselves, they're driving themselves incredibly well. Gerdes and his team took a stock Audi TTS and tapped into the steering, brakes, and throttle. Their goal isn't a remote-controlled pre-programmed car but an actual self-driving vehicle that can read the road all by itself.
The results have been a resounding success. Recently the team sent their car up Colorado's Pike's Peak, a ride of 12.4 miles and 153 turns. Although they sent a lead car to chase away hikers and the occasional moose, the car made it to the top all by itself without a hitch.
Their next goal was the racetrack, to see how far they could push the car under extreme conditions. Not only did the car get up to 115 miles per hour, but it was able to corner at the absolute limit, hug every curve, and brake as seamlessly as a professional driver.
That's probably because Gerdes used actual race-car drivers to build the algorithms that guide his robo-Audi. Using advanced neuro-monitoring technology, Gerdes placed electrodes on the scalps of drivers and monitored which sections of their brain fired as they performed different driving functions. Drivers make hundreds of decisions and tiny adjustments around every turn, and the goal of the car is to process all of the same data a driver sees and make decisions that are just as good -- or better. Using GPS, inertial sensors, and finely tuned robotics to turn the wheel, the robo-car is always adapting to conditions and asking itself what it can do to go faster.
Of course, driving quickly around a track is of limited utility to most of us. But Gerdes, speaking Tuesday at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit in San Jose, Calif., pointed out that this technology will eventually transform into essential safety features in typical passenger cars. He said that humans are responsible for 90% of all auto accidents. Could you possibly eliminate these if you eliminate people as drivers?
Gerdes answered, "It's hard to make software that is perfect. If your software has an error, that could be a fatal error." And yet if you design a car with the capabilities of a race-car driver and then give it software that's far more conservative, there's a huge space to help the average motorist. A robo-car could help a driver judge the traction on the road surface or react quickly to unforeseen obstacles.
While technology can't do everything to prevent drivers from being reckless or distracted, safety is being engineered into our cars with every new model. The future of automotive innovation, it seems, is more likely to involve tiny microprocessors than massive tail fins If a self-driving car was good enough for Batman, why not let the rest of us drive one -- or be driven by one -- off the lot?
- Zac Unger is a freelancer who has written for The Economist, Slate, Men's Journal, NPR, and many others. His memoir,